Six witnesses take the stand during trial of former bank executive connected to Murdaugh

Week two of the trial for alleged Murdaugh conspirator and former CEO of Palmetto State Bank Russell Laffitte continued Monday.
Published: Nov. 14, 2022 at 5:56 PM EST|Updated: Nov. 17, 2022 at 2:38 PM EST
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Week two of the trial for alleged Murdaugh conspirator and former CEO of Palmetto State Bank Russell Laffitte continued Monday as additional witnesses took the stand, including people who claim Laffitte stole from them.

Laffitte is accused of helping former Lowcountry attorney Alex Murdaugh and suspended attorney Cory Fleming divert nearly $2 million from clients. A federal grand jury indicted him on charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, bank fraud, and misapplication of bank funds.

The morning started off with sisters Alaina Spohn and Hannah Plyler taking the stand. Laffitte is accused of taking money out of Hannah Plyler’s conservator account which contained money from settlements resulting from a deadly crash that killed their mother and brother in 2005. Both girls shared emotional testimony about the accident and what events followed.

Murdaugh won a settlement for the Plyler girls shortly after the crash. Since both girls were under the age of 18 at the time, Laffitte was appointed to oversee the money. Spohn said they were told that the settlement money “was enough money where I would never have to work a day in my life.”

Both sisters testified that they were each given a weekly allowance of $100 and had to request money from Russell personally for gas, clothing and food, while they were tossed between homes and Alaina even had to live out of her car at one point.

“Russell was like a father figure to me, but more on the logistics side,” Spohn said. “If I needed money for school or lunch money, I would call him but it was never on an emotional base.”

On Spohn’s 18th birthday, she said she met with Laffitte where he had boxes of documents to hand over to her.

“I remember thinking if he had all that documentation, I would think that everything would be OK,” she said.

Spohn lost her home, and with it, the conservatorship documents, to a fire in 2016. She requested copies of the documents from Laffitte, but said it wasn’t until an agent with the State Law Enforcement Division contacted her after Alex Murdaugh’s wife, Maggie; and their youngest son, Paul, were shot to death at the Murdaugh family’s rural property in Colleton County in June of 2021 that Laffitte turned over the documents.

“It raised a red flag that it took three years to receive the documents from Russell but it took SLED requesting it, for me to finally get it all,” she said.

Spohn now works in law enforcement and said she does not need to work because of the settlement.

“But I chose to work because I believe healed people are the best people to help hurting people,” she said.

Hannah Plyler was next on the stand and shared testimony to that of her sister. When Plyler turned 18, she said Laffitte handed over all the documents without explaining what was in the binders or what to do with all the money coming her way.

She said that she was never aware of the loans Laffitte was taking out of her account, which the next witness, FBI Forensic Accountant Cyndra Swinson, attested to.

Swinson reviewed bank accounts and checks from both Murdaugh and Laffitte. She testified Laffittee loaned himself $250,000 and used the money for his home improvements. Laffitte had $70 in his personal account at the time.

Another $90,000 loan taken out of the Plyler account was deposited into Murdaugh’s account after he had overdrawn his account by $3,000, Swinson said. Laffitte made 14 transfers from Plyler’s settlement account to Murdaugh while his account was overdrawn, Swinson said.

Laffitte continued extending loans and money orders from other conservatorship accounts to pay back the initial Plyler loans.

Spann Laffitte, Russell Laffitte’s first cousin, was the next witness called to the stand Monday afternoon. He said there was a lack of transparency with the PSB Board of Directors and Laffitte about the loan transactions with Murdaugh.

“It didn’t sound like sound banking practices,” he said.

Spann Laffitte said in discussions about the $750,000 loaned to Murdaugh, the bank’s board was told the loan was used to renovate Murdaugh’s Edisto Beach House. The board was not aware of a $350,000 loan from Murdaugh’s checking account to another attorney or the $400,000 directly deposited into Murdaugh’s account, clearing his negative balance.

Spann Laffitte also testified that it would have been Russell Laffitte’s responsibility as loan officer to inform the board of these details. He testified that he did not learn that loan was not used for beach house renovations until after an internal investigation.

Lucius Laffitte, a second cousin of Russell Laffitte and fellow PSB Board of Directors member was specifically given the name Hakeem Pinckney and said Russell Laffitte acted like he didn’t know who that was. But Lucious Laffitte testified that when he followed up public records, Russell Laffitte as the personal representative for Pinckney.

“As a cousin who loves him, I voted to fire Russell because he was intentionally deceptive, dishonest, and stole,” Lucius Laffitte said. “I had a fiduciary relationship to the bank founded by his father, grandfather, and father who sowed integrity into it their entire life.”

An additional Laffitte family member, Becky Laffitte, Lucius’ sister and another PSB board member, was the last witness called on Monday. Once the board was informed about the loans, she was concerned and not happy about how the loans were handled.

She testified about her feelings when she decided to fire Russell from the bank.

“I had to set aside my family. We are very close family and we love each other dearly. It was probably one of the hardest things decisions I’ve ever had to make,” she said. “I owe it to my family, the bank and the loyal customers to make the decision that I had to make and I stand by it.”

The trial will continue this week with the judge pushing for the trial to end before Thanksgiving.